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Crown of Weeds
Amy Gerstler
Penguin Poets, $14.95 (paper)

by Thylias Moss

How it matters when I read this, at a time when I am more prone to milk every romantic possibility out of the most (otherwise) meaningless encounters with my husband, this morning watching him brush his teeth, Colgate frothing around his mouth in a pale, teal sort of color reminiscent of the shade I should have chosen for those bridesmaid dresses (ten of them) I made, and reminiscent also of the flowers he once gave me when I was shy about being with him twenty-seven years ago, so I kissed him sharing this froth and had on my lips remnants of those old first flowers that passions have melted, transformed to froth. So in this state, I come to Amy Gerstler's Crown of Weeds, and because of this state, I can detect in it no strangeness at all, just those absolutely necessary gestures (that I hope I would endorse even were I not in this state) to transform, to present the process of living as a form of enchantment, thereby creating a vehicle in which to move, in which to assure that there can always be departure, and that departure, a sense of leaving one realm on the way to another though it is unnamed, is in fact the purpose. For in this act of unending departure, there is no opportunity for anything to become familiar or reliable or threatening, for whatever it is, it is always new, always compelling, and about to be abandoned, perhaps just to be rediscovered endlessly.

Midway through the book, Gerstler in "An Account of Herself" offers a speaker who admits that "I still have trouble telling the difference between progress and pathology." Of course there would be this trouble, for nothing is fixed, that is one of the benefits of always departing. Anything can be changed, even released. Everything is in a stage of existence, some stages more sublime than others, but all of them stages. Progress of course is just a form of motion, the movement accomplished by departing. But to depart ceaselessly, to leave life (a frequent event in Crown of Weeds), seemingly arriving in death only to be granted the likelihood of revival (a frequent event in Crown of Weeds), becomes pathological to the logic that is maintained, despite all this traveling and progress, that there should be some permanence. Again; no strangeness here, although Gerstler occasionally names, deliberately, through some particularly challenged and disillusioned speakers (those weighed down, burdened so that moving, rising is compromised), certain circumstances and objects strange--as in the title poem where the speaker in taking inventory of his life comes up short, finding his "tunelessness" more conspicuous than both his song of transformation and his reverential interest in facsimiles of bliss. This speaker asserts that he "bloomed manic, strange" (emphasis added), lamenting his "solitary boyhood" and nearly succumbing to the cowardice of self-pity, overlooking that while "manic" and "strange" blossoming may not broach the ideal, it is nevertheless authentic blooming; there is here more revelation than disillusionment. In fact, the speaker admits that he but "momentarily" forgets "the pleasure ahead of [him]," the pleasure to which he must travel in order to claim it, the facsimiles of bliss delivering him to it via his "analytic faculty of sight, [his] appreciation of color and pattern" that help him "consume the world with [his] eyes: cathedrals, weeds, cabbage leaves," and "the intricate carpet design on the stairs," "a particular configuration of branches." There remains commitment to delight (hunger is necessary, not strange) as the world unfolds and unravels. This commitment itself is what actually adorns the speaker (and appropriately names the book), for this exalting commitment makes of the speaker something of a monarch whose ceremonial objects do not dazzle (being but facsimiles), yet function genuinely, the crown no less symbolic (of hoped-for elevation) for being made of what grows profusely and tenaciously--of what is troublesome and common; the kingdom of weeds is kingdom, no matter where it falls in the hierarchy of kingdoms. The point is: it too falls.

This strangeness is a condition mostly refuted by vision-driven speakers inspired by the traveling and the compelling inventory that incessant traveling inspires when the traveler lists what has been found (or noticed) during motion. In "Account of Herself," for instance, the speaker offers as travels credentials: "I spent decades awakening, / wandering this nations' / dazzling displays / of petticoats and neckties." I should point out that Gerstler, as she (and everyone) must, nevertheless places upon the traveler limitation (the speaker in this poem begins with a sort of disclaimer: "Born at the onset / of this tranquilizer age"), for interpretation, of necessity, is limited to what the interpreter has noticed--hence the opening paragraph of this commentary on Crown of Weeds.

The idea of non-arrival is an element of enchantment, especially the open ending of living "happily ever after," for that ending announces the failure to arrive at any other state of perception or stage of existence such as disillusionment, aging, maturity, death. Enchantment in its rejection of reality as a fixed entity travels to a union with pathology yet the ability to transform is crucial to live and move through cycles and stages of life while retaining bliss. Indeed, Gerstler's use of enchantment as transforming is a splendid act of rebellion, a fine rejection of withering (still movement as is any deterioration) to nothingness for nothingness (a hub, so to speak, where most everything has a little lay-over or rerouting from time to time, time being another such hub) would simply transform, move elsewhere.

How loftily, then, in such context are the insane to be esteemed, for the insane or any who are given to hallucination can travel further than most and apparently, often instantaneously. The hallucination (such as the "beautiful" hallucinations in "Song") transforms the mundane, establishes alternatives; the insane or the visionary are cartographers of what would be inaccessible if they did not travel there. But I would contend that this is heroic, not strange. This is necessary, not strange. And the reward, of course, is the access, the journey itself. Such people (liberators really) resist form, stability, definitiveness; they revere change, the ability to flee a stage of being to enter another, to contort experience, to alter perception at which point it becomes safer to reintroduce what has been abandoned, for now that thing or situation would more likely be viewed as changed, different if not new. Gerstler's figure of "The Superior Man" has abilities afforded by this rank, this rank that he has earned because of his ability to transform (a form of enchantment and therefore motion, an act of rebellion, a rejection of stability, inertia, etc.) at will:


This being may exit
his body on a moment's
notice, in midsentence
if necessary, without
anyone being the wiser.
Occasionally. he sucks
rusty nails when feeling
anemic. As often as not,
scholars tell us,
the superior man was a good-
looking woman . . .

This is a truly superior rebellion in its not appearing to be rebellion at all, deception as a form of enchantment. By the end of the poem, the superior being has become someone with whom the speaker has had intimate connection, familiar again, but different, infinite--so always traveling, perhaps just from superior to ordinary and back again. The superior being, as do all the travelers, takes inventory, picking up a shoe heel, nails, considering goldenrod, a steak, yellow dung-supported mushrooms, ghosts (themselves superior beings who don't rebel and don't commit to death).

Instructions for the taking of inventory to reveal the process through which enchantment is accessed are offered in the book's opening poem, "Recipe for Resurrection." Here the process is particularly exciting for the power over death that resurrection supplies and also for the transformation of what is ordinary, including and especially a corpse:


Bathe the body in quinine.
Then let his wrists
be braceleted with the stings
of tiny iridescent insects.
A group of ten restless boys
should encircle the sleeper
whose marrow is to be rekindled.
The boys must sneeze violently
without covering their mouths
till the body is wet.
A poultice of figs and licorice
smeared over the lips
has often proved useful.

[ . . . ]

armed with pinches and kisses,
fistfuls of pumpkin seeds
and biscuit crumbs, let him
be breathed on by the subtle
dusty gusts from a lily's
golden-tonsilled throat.
Graciously welcome the truant
soul home as you stutter your love--
that thin tuneless exhaust
we exhale every day.

Parts of things become compelling and imbued with power, parts of things for their individual contributions to both their own and a larger process; these parts are the equivalent of stages of beings, and if everything is in flux, in process, then even that which seems complete or finished (such as death) is also a stage, a step towards something. It is the microscope, the telescope (liberating tools) that can help those who are not liberators discover the enchantment of the components of enchantment; the ingredients required for the recipe are like those discoveries that telescopes and microscopes assist and sponsor ("stings of . . . insects," "duck feathers," "a lily's golden-tonsilled throat," "figs," "licorice"). The moment in which the dead reawakens (the sleeping beauty so to speak) is where the enchantment, as much as in any fairy tale, must end, for there is an apparent rupture in process, a temporary recognition of the world rejoined in which motion halts, in which change eases, and in that moment of return to home ("home" to indicate a stable--inert--base, illusion or not, that is fixed, a permanent point of departure that in being fixed can be only returned to, cannot travel) that really cannot exist, there is reduction of magic to mundane. "Breath" so otherwise magnificent, so otherwise a caretaker of process, so otherwise each breath a new breath, original though the intake is of air endlessly recycled, renewed each time it passes through a different organic system, is reduced to "that thin tuneless exhaust / we exhale every day" (also defined in the poem as "love"--so otherwise magnificent, so otherwise a caretaker of process, so otherwise inspiring).

But love does recover, throughout Gerstler's book, when used as a tool of the enchanters and liberators. In fact, it is apparently love that fuels the vehicles in which Gerstler's most rebellious speakers (the ones defying the miasma of hopelessness and dejection) travel to one bliss after another; love of bliss, love of travel, love of accomplishment, love of their own abilities to contrive all this. One of the best illustrations of love as this fuel occurs in the desperate transforming that concludes "Chain of Events" (a title synonymous with "process"):


I wanted a corpse,
and though the previous
week there had been piles
of them stacked
in the high school gym,
I was given only kindling
and fuzzy plaid blankets.
Perched on a bar stool
not long after a major
earthquake, I cried out
for a stiff drink
and felt instead
an awful substitute,
strong emotion,
filling me as though
poured from on high
into a hole drilled
through the top of my head,
only to leak out the soles
of my feet.

[ . . . ]

A grimy, shell-shocked
youngster wearing her torn
blouse inside out
clambered into my lap,
putting a damper
on my ability
to behave as uncouthly
as I usually look forward
to doing in bars.
I patted her back between
shoulder blades no bigger
than toast points,
my approximation
of a motherly touch.
She grabbed my patting
hand, stuck the fingers
in her mouth
and began sucking them,
as though something might
be dredged up from this dead
well, as though weak milk
thin as cactus juice
might flow from under my nails
if she sucked hard enough--
as though instead of
an empty mine shaft barely
moistened by liquor,
I was some sort of spigot.

Here the one who is transformed has lost faith in enchantment, yet is changed by one, a child, still aware of potential (via desperation or hallucination that is most often called "imagination" when associated with youth) who because of that potential succeeds in turning the sucked fingers of the speaker's hand from "an empty mine shaft barely moistened by liquor" into "some sort of (that is, some form of, process of) spigot." In "A Measured Joy," the speaker is one who witnesses an enchanter/liberator in action, referring to the enchanter as "a flagrant earthly / glory, Mysterious as opium" and "as full of epiphanies / as a thoughtful drinker," and concluding that love is frightening "in its lunatic ceaselessness," yet this ceaselessness is responsible for travel, motion, progress: for the jettisoning of the weight and burden that would prevent the rising, prevent the resurrection, the remaking that must occur if there is to be to start each day, a dawn (praise now the ceaseless travel of the earth around the sun).

The privilege of traveling, of enchanting, is a heightened awareness that seems strange to those who are more static and passive. Travelers begin in a most familiar locale: the body. The body is home, the primary point of departure, where travelers are situated most of the time, yet despite the possible humble implications of familiarity, the extraordinary occurs as that place is transformed (time is such a transformer), both the body and what the body has visited. This transformation introduces second, third, fourth chances, the speaker, for instance, in "A Fan Letter" ". . . being remade / into a reflective, immaculate being" (the very sort of entity that frequents enchanted locales). An obvious benefit of such traveling and remaking is the change in perspective, the ability to see various levels and textures, to understand the necessity of context, the mutability of everything, the unlikelihood of answers, even the rejection of answers as these tend to devalue process which consists only of questions. Here, of course, is the risk, the loss of answers and likely therefore also of comfort.

"Bear in mind all journeys / are perilous," Gerstler writes in the opening lines of "On the Road." The speaker loses a sense of security and is lost in the woods, yet perseveres, eventually approaches something that "From far away . . . / resembled an ornate tiered / wedding cake, beginning to mold"--hardly inviting or welcoming, but still a valid discovery. Closer, however, from right within the barn, there is further transformation as process (the journey) continues: "The hayloft felt like a giant / nest. Oh, the eggs it could / have contained!" (the speaker now utilizes a transforming tool, realizing imagined possibilities that rebel against fixed reality). There is reward for this daring. There is reward for unplanned, unpredictable travel. There is reward for rebellion, for practicing enchantment; waking the next day unable to stay ("eager to leave")--because the speaker is now committed to travel--the speaker discovers, "that while I was sleeping / they'd filled my boots / with strawberries." This event of strawberries is one that happens only through the process, only through enchantment, hardly strange or inexplicable, for it is the direct consequence of movement, of stretching and reaching toward, of leaning, becoming elastic so that an incredible flexibility is attained in which even approaching infinity, the elasticity holds; there is no breakage, but assuming breakage happens (ah mystery), each fragment dances, moves in the process to a place not possible to visit without fragmentation. This is why a road not taken is never taken; each step constructs a road; each motion compels a road, and it is a road that exists only for the moment in which it is built, only for its brief existence in the process of that step. We are going headlong, Gerstler's book leading us, to some unnamable "where" that does not exist until we arrive and that ceases the moment we leave, changing us while we are there, enriching us, bringing us closer to something, but not to finishing--that will never be.

Originally published in the February/ March 1998 issue of Boston Review



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